On December 16, 2011, police in riot gear accompanied by plainclothes officers swept into the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen to put down a protest by striking oil workers that had turned to rioting. At least a dozen protesters were shot dead. Dozens more were wounded. One protester was killed by police in a nearby town, and another died after being tortured in the investigation that followed. In the aftermath, it was clear that the incident would test Kazakhstan’s commitment to impartial justice and free speech. Unfortunately, the government’s response has been a classic authoritarian crackdown.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet today with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev to sign a strategic agreements focused on energy and raw materials. Merkel, whose country has been cultivating access to Kazakhstan’s natural resources for some time, is not likely to devote much of the discussion to her guest’s domestic troubles. Nazarbayev prefers to present Kazakhstan as an eager business partner, committed to its international obligations and open to gradual reforms, and foreign governments and companies often have an economic interest in accepting this image at face value. However, recent events suggest that popular frustration with the country’s authoritarian system is becoming more difficult to ignore.